Screen time to heal, and perhaps to harm

In any given year, nearly 20 percent of U.S. adults, more than 40 million people, have to contend with a mental illness. Getting treatment is often a struggle; fewer than half of those affected get any sort of care, which can be especially hard to find in rural and underserved communities.

Virtual reality may seem like the least likely technology to address the lack of mental health care. But researchers are building the case for VR as a way to help people with diagnoses including phobias, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia.

The VR approach employs a treatment called exposure therapy, in which people learn bit by bit to tolerate situations that they fear. In this issue, technology writer Maria Temming explains how simpler, less expensive systems are making VR more accessible, to the point where people might be able to use them on their own, with only a virtual therapist as a guide.

This may sound like just the latest overhyped application for VR. But during an art meeting at Science News, as we watched a simulated stroll on an elevated catwalk that is used in therapy to help people contend with fear of heights, my stomach did a flip. And I’m not afraid of heights. Indeed, these faux experiences can spark real fears (SN: 8/4/18, p. 15).

These experiments in virtual therapy seem to inhabit a more benign corner of the larger question of what immersing ourselves for hours a day in the alternate realities of smartphones and tablets is doing to our brains. As neuroscience writer Laura Sanders has reported, not so long ago, the internet was a stationary experience, housed in a bulky computer in the office or in a corner of the family room. Now screens go where we go, and we adjust our behavior to suit them. “Portable technology has overhauled our driving habits, our dating styles and even our posture,” Sanders writes (SN: 4/1/17, p. 18).

Spending hours a day entwined with technology is changing our brains, scientists say. I’m logging about 3.3 hours a day on just my phone, according to the iPhone’s new Screen Time feature. But I like to tell myself that much of that time is being used to check work e-mail, not browsing Spotify playlists.

At least I’m doing a wee bit better than the typical U.S. kid, who spends 3.6 hours a day on average staring at screens for recreational use, according to a study published in September (SN: 10/27/18, p. 12). Most of the children blew past pediatricians’ recommendations that children log no more than two hours a day of screen time. Many of these kids were also missing out on the recommended amounts of sleep and exercise. Those children fared worse on cognitive tests than those who led more balanced lives.

Of course, as Sanders points out, nearly everything we do changes the brain. Previous technologies, from electricity to airplanes to televisions, have had deep impacts on how we live. But this feels different. And it’s too early to have evidence on how we’ll ultimately fare.

Stay with us as we continue to follow developments in the nascent science of screen time, whether you’re reading Science News on your phone, tablet or that time-tested technology, a printed magazine.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.

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